Back when I was an even smaller little person than I am today, my family wasn't exactly rolling in money. And so whenever we needed something, my father predictably did one of two things.

If we needed to buy the item, he put it under a microscope. Every connection, every piece got inspected. Would it hold up and last? What were the materials, the measurements? What was the process that put it together?

If my father could make the item himself, he did. And to be blunt, he didn't do temporary fixes. He worked with anticipation of what could go wrong and designed to prevent problems.

The 9 traits of the craftsman

I realize now that, while my father certainly wasn't of Steve Jobs' caliber for innovation, he was without a doubt a craftsman. And craftsmen have very specific characteristics that connect to leadership. They usually

  • Want products to work--and to do so for the long term.
  • Want products to be beautiful.
  • Have an outstanding work ethic that makes them willing to go through a more time-consuming or difficult process to get the quality they want.
  • Are highly concerned with the relationship with the customer that occurs because of the results.
  • Are exceptionally honest--they describe their product exactly as is and don't try to oversell.
  • Are humble--they genuinely want to do good for others through hard work and attention to detail.
  • Are flexible, eager learners who are not afraid to use a wide variety of both manual and automated tools/techniques.
  • Are resourceful, seeing many ways to use what they have.

But perhaps the most important quality of a craftsman is that they project themselves onto whatever they make. They won't accept faults in the products because they see those products as an expression of who they are. And while they have to be careful not to take criticism too personally, their intense connection to what they do ensures that they approach every step of their process with both passion and seriousness.

An unfortunate disconnection

Yet, today, the default mode of operation seems to me to be the opposite of everything a craftsman is, the rationale being that the demand for right-here-right-now somehow necessitates a lower standard. A product that breaks or a service protocol that's frustrating? Hey, no big deal, you profit when the customer has to buy a replacement or book more time. Units sold or the size of your following is the metric that matters, even more than loyalty. Reviews are ripe with misunderstandings and unanswered questions. And if that weren't bad enough, billions of dollars of materials end up in landfills because they're no longer serviceable and aren't convenient to recycle.

Becoming the craftsman you need to be

Real leaders understand that work is about more than how much you can pump out. It's about making something reliable that both you and the customer can be proud of. And they understand that, by being a craftsman, they actually eliminate hassle for those who buy. They also grasp that craftsmanship is still economical--you might not have as many customers, but those customers are often highly loyal and are willing to accept a higher price point because of the ease and predictability you offer.

But then the question becomes, if you aren't a craftsman yet, how do you become one?

  • Study and learn from experts in the areas you need to know about. Observe what they do closely and practice with them hands-on.
  • Stop looking at the clock. Start looking at what you get when you're done.
  • Once you have a design, look for at least one way to improve it with purpose. Then do it again.
  • Imagine that your resources--or those of your customer--are tapped and that the design subsequently won't be easy to replace. Then ask what you'd need.
  • Interact face-to-face with buyers, not only to get feedback on the design, but to see if they have a sense of who you are.
  • Be able to identify the "why" behind every component (and "it's cheapest" doesn't count!).
  • Test ruthlessly and as often as you can.
  • Make processes totally transparent.
  • Read competitor reviews to know what customers won't tolerate before you even start.
  • Commit to lots of practice (or hire someone who already has). It might take months or even years before you're proficient in the skill that's necessary to make the desired result. Expect your results to improve as experience increases.

And finally, take the attitude that money is a consequence, not a motivator. Craftsmen enjoy cash like the rest of us, don't get me wrong. But their real reward is knowing that they've created a legacy that's not easy to erase, that they've connected with others in a helpful, personal way. If you can keep your eye on what you're leaving behind, rather than on what you're getting in the moment, the foundation you need is solid.

Published on: Aug 30, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.